For so small a movement the Communist Party of the United States has been the subject of an extraordinarily large number of historical studies. Accounts of the Party’s activities and reminiscences of its members and former members have been appearing at a steadily increasing rate. This interest can hardly be attributed to the revitalization of the Party; it remains today, as it has been for the last quarter-century, a tiny sect with a steadfast and overriding loyalty to the Soviet Union. Oddly, the collapse of the New Left and the impotence of recent American radicalism have helped to renew fascination with the CPUSA. Historians and activists rummaging in the radical past for lessons about the failures of the American left have found abundant material in the Communist Party. In little more than sixty years it has gone through enough phases to test almost every conceivable hypothesis.

Founded in 1919, the Communist movement was a divided and underground one until the Comintern, in the early 1920s, unified it and made it legal. For the rest of the decade it tried unsuccessfully to gain influence in a variety of reformist organizations or to build alliances with such “progressive forces” as the socialist-minded unions. Beginning in 1928 with the Comintern’s proclamation of a “Third Period” of growing radicalization, the Party embarked on ultrarevolutionary policies. It characterized socialists such as Norman Thomas and A.J. Muste as “social-fascists,” and considered them greater enemies of the working class than the fascists themselves.

The Communists set up their own labor unions to compete with the AF of L, which they scorned, but they were unable to grow as rapidly during the Depression as their theories suggested they should. Under the guidance of the Comintern, in 1934 a subtle shift from the worst excesses of the Third Period was begun. One year later the Seventh World Congress proclaimed the need for a Popular Front against fascism, and American Communists dutifully junked their old tactics. Saying little about socialism, emphasizing antifascism and alliances with liberal and progressive groups, their membership and influence grew rapidly.

The Popular Front years from 1935 to 1939 were the high point of American Communism. Communists had significant influence in the newly formed CIO, and became a force in such powerful political organizations as the Washington Commonwealth Federation, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, and New York’s American Labor Party. Party fronts ranging from the American Writers Congress to the Workers Alliance became respectable. Yet in 1939 the Communists threw away everything they had achieved, cut their ties to the New Deal and the non-Communist left, and endorsed the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The subsequent period of isolation was broken just as suddenly by the Nazi attack on Russia. While the Party never managed to regain its former status, it enjoyed a resurgence during the war, benefiting from the popularity of the American-Russian alliance.

American Communists’ decisions were never made independently. For many years they openly acknowledged Comintern interference. The Daily Worker printed directives from Moscow and, in 1929, Stalin himself publicly deposed the national Party leader Jay Lovestone despite his having been overwhelmingly endorsed at a Party convention just weeks before. The Soviets were more discreet after American diplomatic recognition of the USSR in 1933; Party leaders traveled to Moscow for private consultations. World War II made communications difficult but not impossible; in 1939 Party leader Earl Browder received Comintern instructions via shortwave radio.

American Communists also kept up with Pravda in the effort to interpret Soviet policy. Guesswork, however, sometimes proved hazardous. In 1943 Stalin ordered the Comintern dissolved as a gesture to his wartime allies. Every Communist Party was now theoretically on its own. Browder, convinced that this action signaled Soviet approval of a long-term, postwar collaboration between the United States and Russia, succeeded in changing the Communist Party into a political association in 1944. Its goal was to work within the traditional two-party system as a progressive force. When William Foster, Browder’s main rival in the Party, privately protested this revision of Marxism-Leninism, his objections were sent to Moscow. Foster was advised to desist and he did.

Within a year Browder’s initiative destroyed him. The French Communist leader Jacques Duclos published an article attacking his “revisionism.” Experienced Party leaders quickly sensed that Moscow stood behind Duclos—he quoted material obtainable only from Russia—and purged the unrepentant Browder from their ranks virtually without dissent. Every shift in Soviet foreign policy required a corresponding change in the policies of foreign Communist Parties.

The progressive isolation of American Communists after the war reflected the increasingly strained relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. The 1948 Wallace campaign, the expulsion of Communist-dominated unions from the CIO, the Smith Act trials, and the creation of an underground Party in the early 1950s were among the principal events that marked their decline. A brief spasm of reform stimulated by Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 led to demands by many Communists for a more democratic and independent Communist Party. After this demand was crushed the Party became politically irrelevant. From having 20,000 members in early 1956, it shrank to under 3,000 in early 1958 as members of the reform movement resigned or were expelled.


The first wave of historians of American communism, like Theodore Draper,1 many of them veterans of the bruising left-wing wars of the past, accounted for its gyrations and failures by emphasizing its subordination to the Soviet Union. Beginning in the 1960s, younger historians like James Weinstein,2 sympathetic to the New Left, questioned the Party’s success during the Popular Front, criticizing its compromises with the New Deal and its inadequate stress on socialism. In recent years other writers, like Roger Keeran and Al Richmond,3 have tried to rescue the Party’s reputation and at the same time suggest what lessons it may hold for those concerned with building a workable radical movement.

Maurice Isserman explicitly identifies himself with the third group, criticizing both “cold war” studies and the works of New Left revolutionary purity. While granting that Party history must be viewed against the background of Russian policy, he insists that the Americanization of Communism during the late 1930s and World War II was not simply a response to a Soviet stimulus but reflected the influence and experience of the generation that joined the Party in the 1930s and, in subtle ways, shaped it “to fit their own needs and expectations.” He writes that the “pivot” of his story is the experience of the generation of Communists who joined the Party during the Depression, most of whom abandoned Communism after the failure of the 1956 reforms. For Isserman, their Party history after 1930 is the story of how a generation transformed itself.

In fact, he has produced no such history. His account of the Party during World War II is well researched, informative, and well written. But far from illustrating the thesis he set out to demonstrate, he has subverted it. To Isserman’s credit he fairly and resolutely presents the evidence that undermines his original view; unfortunately he seems not to recognize the nature of his findings.

The title of the book testifies to Isserman’s confusion. During a particularly bitter coal strike led by a Communist union in Harlan County, Kentucky, in 1932 Florence Reese wrote a song, “Which Side Are You On?” At the height of the Third Period, between 1928 and 1934, Communists recognized only two sides; radicals either supported the Party or were considered to be allies of fascism. Such a rhetorical question made some sense during a strike. But what can Isserman mean by “Which Side Were You On?” To be on the Party’s side during World War II, the period that mainly concerns him, hardly required special merit or even action. Supporting Roosevelt and the Soviet Union, opposing fascism and strikes put one on the Party’s side but it also put the Party on Roosevelt’s side along with millions of non-Communists.

Nor does Isserman provide much evidence that the Party’s internal disputes involved choosing sides. Their history, as Isserman himself recounts, suggests that American Communists were above all on Stalin’s side. After the Nazi-Soviet Pact they pronounced Britain and France as vile as Germany and praised militant labor demands and strikes, even—or especially—when they disrupted war production. After Hitler turned on Russia, the Communists became super-patriots, supporting American entry into the war and, later, no-strike pledges, incentive wage plans, internment of Japanese-Americans, and the prosecution of the Trotskyists under the Smith Act.

Isserman implies that the wartime period influenced the abortive reform era of 1956 because many of the Party’s younger cadres, who had secondary positions during the Popular Front periods, led the later rebellion. He concludes, however, that they learned “too late” that foreign models were inappropriate, civil liberties and democratic institutions were essential, and that Marxism did not have all the answers. His own conclusion suggests that the Party record during World War II requires a look backward, not forward. The same Party leaders who worked out coalition policies had once supervised sectarian policies and would do both again. They acted as they did because they believed the Comintern wanted such policies. The Party did not fully endorse Roosevelt until he delivered a speech in Chicago in October 1937 calling for a quarantine of aggressors. The leaders did so because the Soviet push for collective security, not domestic issues, was far more important to the Soviets and the Comintern.

The Russians were so preoccupied by the fascist danger that they were willing to countenance considerable flexibility in Party tactics. In France and Spain, Communists insisted on being leading members of the Popular Front: in America the Party accepted a silent partnership in Roosevelt’s coalition. When the “Roosevelt recession” of 1937 shook the economy, American Communist leaders traveled to Moscow and received Comintern approval for absolving FDR of responsibility by labeling the recession a “sit-down strike” of capital even though such an analysis contradicted Marxist theory. In view of this record, Isserman’s account would suggest that the Party through the war years continued its subservience to Soviet foreign policy, as best as it could decipher it. Nor did the younger Party cadres have a decisive part to play in these events. Major decisions were made in camera by a handful of Party veterans of the 1920s and then ratified by a docile membership. Not until after the war did younger Communists move into important positions.


In his preface Isserman bravely maintains that the Party had to be more than a Soviet puppet. Why else would “anyone with intelligence and integrity” have remained in it for very long? Good people with the highest motives could and did join. But to remain for any length of time required acquiescence to the needs of Moscow because its leaders valued no other authority so highly and tolerated no dissent. Why else did they stifle internal disagreements, switch sides constantly on both domestic and foreign policies, and throw away whatever chances they had to build a thriving socialist movement?

What accounted for this willing surrender of autonomy to Russia? It was hardly physical or financial control by the Comintern, however important this might have been in some other countries. What seems clear is that those who believed in Marxism-Leninism were convinced that their doctrine was scientific, and that its authority was confirmed by the success of the revolution in Russia. Just as a neophyte in physics would defer to Einstein, so were American Communists ready to grant primacy to the only party to have seized power and held it in the name of the working class.

Inquiring into motives and causes for any particular action of the Communist Party requires guesswork and caution because of the paucity of primary source materials. Party records, particularly after 1930, are sparse. For security’s sake the Party did not keep extensive archives and the Soviet Union does not provide access to its voluminous records on the Comintern. FBI files contain much information but great patience and good luck as well as considerable funds are required to pry loose pertinent documents. To understand the Party, therefore, historians have always relied on oral histories and autobiographies. When used carefully and cross-checked with other accounts and available documentation, they are invaluable; by themselves they are often misleading, whether intentionally or not.

Of the autobiographies produced by card-carrying members, one of the very few to rise above an apology is Joseph Freeman’s An American Testament (1936). On Comintern orders the Party had the book suppressed, and this contributed to his breaking away. Many of the early accounts by defectors like Louis Budenz, colored by an anti-Communist animus and filled with wild charges, were barely credible.4 Even when accurate, some were so full of hatred that the Party’s attraction seemed limited to psychopaths, liars, malcontents, and perverts, with an occasional fool or dupe tossed in. During the past decade, however, a growing number of more balanced and reflective autobiographies by such former members as George Charney5 have appeared, while academics have been encouraging other Communists and ex-Communists to recount their experiences.

Steve Nelson, American Radical, by Nelson and two young collaborators, is a fascinating portrait of a Communist activist with as varied and adventurous a career as can be imagined. Nelson was born in Croatia in 1903 to a family of millers. He entered America illegally in 1920, fleeing the Austro-Hungarian draft, taught himself carpentry, and worked on construction jobs in Philadelphia. Introduced to socialism by a fellow immigrant active in the Socialist Labor Party, he switched to the Communists in 1923. Not only was their greater involvement in the carpenters’ union affairs more attractive to him, but their social activities gave a young man a chance to mingle with workers of different ethnic backgrounds. Nelson met his wife in the movement; he also got an education and an appreciation for books and music there.

Like most other Communists who came from the working class, Nelson tried to organize the places where he worked, first in Pittsburgh, then in Detroit and New York. By 1929 he had become a full-time Party functionary in Chicago, responsible for organizing the unemployed. There was no shortage of recruits for demonstrations or eviction protests but since the police had picked him out for special attention, the Party soon reassigned him to southern Illinois to work with the National Miners’ Union, a Communist-led organization set up to challenge John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers. It was a grim life, in which Nelson and his family could rarely afford to buy meat for dinner, and had to contend with primitive housing and vigilante violence. When the NMU disintegrated, Nelson went on to work in the anthracite fields of eastern Pennsylvania for five hard years—building councils of the unemployed, recruiting for the Party, and leading hunger marches.

Nelson took only one break from this harsh life, when he attended the Lenin School from 1931 to 1933. The Party sent its most promising young cadres to Moscow for training in Marxism-Leninism, the labor movement, and revolution. Both he and his wife, while in Moscow to work for the Comintern, carried out missions inside Nazi Germany as couriers. Nelson delivered $50,000 in cash to the Chinese Communists battling Chiang Kai-shek. His next trip abroad, in 1937, was to fight in the Spanish Civil War. The Abraham Lincoln Battalion, composed of American volunteers, had been bloodied in its first battles and its morale was low. The Communist Party dispatched Nelson to solve these problems. As political commissar, he served as liaison between officers and soldiers, using his persuasive powers and tact to smooth over difficulties, until he was severely wounded at Belchite.

Following his return to America in 1938, Nelson got more sensitive assignments. He helped to root out spies infiltrated into the Southern California Party by large corporations, went “on the shelf,” or underground, during the Nazi-Soviet Pact period, and served as chairman of the San Francisco and then the Oakland Party organizations during World War II. These assignments later led to charges by HUAC—which were never proven—that he had master-minded the theft of atomic secrets from the Livermore Radiation Laboratory. Nelson spent three years on the Party’s National Board in New York supervising relations with ethnic groups, and then was reassigned to Pittsburgh as district organizer.

Nelson arrived in Pittsburgh in 1948 just as the government’s repression of Communists began in earnest. Party members spent most of their time and energy fending off attacks, political, legal, and sometimes physical. Nelson was convicted under both the Pennsylvania Sedition Act and the federal Smith Act. He faced twenty-five years in prison before the higher courts overturned his convictions on constitutional grounds. While his case was being appealed he was jailed for months in a grim state workhouse where the jailers, suspecting him of stirring up other prisoners, delighted in sending him into a squalid “hole” for insubordination. After so many sacrifices and such a long ordeal Nelson took part in the reform movement of 1956; he resigned from the Party when he saw it fail to introduce inner-party reforms, while remaining dependent on Russia.

Nelson’s life has been tumultuous and its details make fascinating reading. He vividly describes the people he encountered, ranging from the J. Robert Oppenheimers to “Stella,” an unemployed, single mother of eight children who lived in the anthracite fields. Few other books so richly convey what life as a Communist functionary was like. As a guide to history, however, Nelson’s book is less reliable. His major theme is the perpetual conflict within the Party between the advocates of greater flexibility and broader coalitions, and the hard-line sectarians. He forthrightly identifies himself with the former but recalls history rather selectively and erroneously to buttress his view that the Party was largely a reformist organization.

For example, he insists that in the early 1930s it fought for the immediate demands of the workers, supported pro-New Deal politicians, and backed reform legislation—he even claims that the Social Security Act “incorporated our main goal of unemployment compensation as well as a pension system.” As late as 1935, however, Party propaganda was still calling for a Soviet America, and Franklin Roosevelt was being denounced for paving the way for fascism. The Communists bitterly opposed not only the Social Security Act, but also the Wagner Act and every other major piece of New Deal legislation until 1937. Until directed otherwise by the Comintern, they shrugged off the possibility of a Republican victory in 1936 as of no importance to American workers. Whatever private doubts Nelson or other Communists might have had about these policies, they had no effect on what the Party actually did.

Not that Nelson is reticent about the Party’s errors. He criticizes the concept of democratic centralism (it really meant, “if you don’t agree, you’re out”), admits that he accepted the falsified history presented at the Lenin School, tells how the Party often lapsed into sectarianism, uncritically praised Russia, and adapted its policies and leadership to fit Soviet foreign-policy interests. But he makes curious omissions as well. He suggests that membership grew during the late 1930s partly because the Party recognized that “constant adulation of the Soviet Union” wouldn’t work in America, while in fact at no time was criticism of Russia allowed. At the height of the purges in 1938 the Daily Worker’s Moscow correspondent, Sender Garlin, nominated Yezhov, head of the NKVD, for the Nobel Peace Prize. American liberals who dared to defend Trotsky were reviled in the Party press and read out of the Popular Front. While he now recognizes Stalin’s crimes, Nelson does not seem fully to appreciate their significance or extent: “Naturally,” he writes, “I now can see the brutality and arbitrariness that displaced millions in the forced collectivization of agriculture and the essentially undemocratic process by which decisions were made and carried out.” Nelson tells how he was moved to leave the Party when he realized in 1956 that Stalin had massacred fellow Communists. That Communism also meant the killing and repression of millions of ordinary Russians is barely mentioned. Nelson claims he did not fully surrender his illusions about Russia until its invasion of Czechoslovakia, a decade after he left the Party; his words suggest he still retains a few.

The most obvious lesson to be learned from the failure of American Communism is that no movement tied to a foreign ideology and state is likely to succeed. Communists were able to make inroads in America only when Soviet and American foreign policies were in agreement. Their “reformist” periods, however, were not determined by the needs or conditions of American workers. Even Earl Browder justified his heresies in 1944 and 1945 on the grounds that it was what the Soviets wanted. The American Communist Party, at least before 1956, is not best understood as a battleground between Stalinists and premature Titoists. Still, both Which Side Were You On? and Steve Nelson, American Radical shed light on the murky landscape of American Communism.

This Issue

November 18, 1982